Longtime Fairbanks resident Greg Hill is one of the coolest guys, and he’s on a mission to invite every boy attending school in Fairbanks North Star Borough to join the club. Hill, who before retirement was the executive director of Noel Wien Public Library, is the creator and coordinator of Guys Read — a program that aims to get fourth-grade boys interested in reading.
Hill works with men from all around the borough, each of whom has his own set of interests and talents, to come serve as reading role models to fourth-grade students.
From radio hosts to engineers, from firefighters to social media curators and from current high school star athletes to police chiefs, Guys Read connects these volunteers with schools to show students that adults with some of the best and most interesting jobs available think reading still is in vogue.
Adult readers volunteer their lunch hour for several days over a three week period, during which time they visit one of the borough’s public elementary schools and read an engaging age-appropriate book to the fourth-grade students. The books usually take the form of comic books or heavily illustrated novels — something that can engage students both through the narration of their reading travel guide and the pictures projected on a nearby wall.
Students gather in a library or common room, where they get the dinner-and-a-show treatment, eating their lunches while taking in the story read by their volunteers.
Explaining the purpose of using comic books and illustrated books for the program, Hill references British author Neil Gaiman, who once referred, as others have, to comic books and fiction in general as a gateway drug to literacy.
Students, economically boys disadvantaged in particular, often lose interest and fall behind the reading curve in fourth grade. It’s a phenomenon so well researched it even has its own monicker: “the fourth-grade slump.” So Hill’s program focuses its efforts there, at that integral point of reading interest.
Guys Read runs for one three-week period each school year. This year’s iteration, the program’s ninth, wrapped up on Friday.
Steve Dutra, the chief at North Pole Police Department, volunteered with Guys Read for the first time this year. He says he hasn’t specifically asked the boys what they think about the reading, but their enjoyment is obvious from they way they get engaged.
At home, Dutra reads to his daughter, in fourth grade, and his son, in fifth grade.
“I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, and I have absolute passion about my children reading,” he said. “We read every night. That’s kind of our time together.”
Dutra’s son just barely missed the chance to experience the Guys Read program with his father as one of the readers, but that’s OK, Dutra said, because his son gets to read with him every night already.
Since Guys Read Alaska first began nine years ago, it has expanded to other Alaska regions outside the Interior, spawning programs in Barrow, Nome and elsewhere.